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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sunspots 320

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

Science: The New York Times reports that, in some species of sharks, embryo animals eat their siblings.

Wired reports on the discovery of a previously unknown group of people, in Brazil.

Christianity: A Christian author of fantastic literature claims that the Bible rules out the possibility of non-human intelligent life in the universe. Some similar authors, in the comments to that post, don't agree.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Alphabet of Thorn, by Patricia A. McKillip

I previously posted briefly on two fantasy works by Patricia A. McKillip, one being Alphabet of Thorn. Having re-read that book (twice consecutively), I wish to return to it. The Wikipedia article on the book is here. I'm going to say some things that aren't in the article. Almost all of them relate to McKillip's writing in general, not just to this book.

First, McKillip is a stylist. Her writing is careful, doesn't mimic anyone else's, and weaves its own spells.

Second, McKillip shifts between reality and whatever is outside of that. In this book, the construction of the library, and the politics after the death of fourteen-year-old Tessera's father, resonate with real things. The things Tessera explores could not exist in the real world of the room in our house, where I am writing this, or in any nearby part of this earth as we know it.

Third, a recurring theme is that young people do not have parents, or do not know who they are. I've already referred to the death of Tessera's father. Nepenthe, the other important character who is a young woman, is a foundling. Someone left her for the librarians to raise. She is not the first baby raised by the librarians. Axis, a male character, loses his father before he reaches adulthood.

Fourth, there is a school. In this case, it's the school for wizards, a floating school. It is not anchored to the earth, or at least it is not found in a fixed place.

Fifth, important characters in McKillip's tales often turn away from exacting vengeance, even for grievous wrongs. That is not a feature of this book, but Kane, an important character, does withdraw herself from a powerful army that has been conquering diverse kingdoms without being defeated. She turns away from the spectacular to the ordinary.

A feature that is not, to my recollection, found in any other of McKillip's other stories is time travel. Some of the characters in Alphabet of Thorn can travel through time.

Thanks for reading. By all means, read McKillip.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Fantastic Literature - E. Stephen Burnett points out how the Bible supports it, part 2

In a previous post, I briefly described the Biblical arguments of E. Stephen Burnett, who claims that, first, Christians can produce fiction, and, second, that that fiction can be fantastic, even have elements of paganism in it. (If you wish to skip my post, and go directly to Burnett, go here and here. But I did more than just point to Burnett.)

Burnett has now gone further, claiming that, first, story-telling was a critical part of the ministry of Jesus, and, second, that at least some of the parables of Jesus were fictional. Burnett's claims are based on what the Bible says about the parables.

Thanks for reading. Read Burnett.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Prayers in the Bible: Not believing we've been answered has a long tradition

Acts 12:12 Thinking about that, he came to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. 13 When Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. 14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, she didn’t open the gate for joy, but ran in, and reported that Peter was standing in front of the gate. 15 They said to her, “You are crazy!” But she insisted that it was so. They said, “It is his angel.” (World English Bible)

Apparently Rhoda believed, but James and John, and Mary, and whoever else was there, didn't. How like us!

This is part of a series on prayers in the Bible. The previous post is here. Thanks for reading. God can, and does, answer prayer. Praise Him!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

After Long Silence, by Sheri S. Tepper

I recently re-read After Long Silence, by Sheri S. Tepper. (Bantam: New York, 1987) I have previously posted on another of her works, Grass. After Long Silence has no Wikipedia article, so far. It deserves one. This won't substitute for a formal article. There are brief reviews here and here.

The basic plot is one that has been used before. An evil company controls the exports from the planet Jubal. The company, and its evil local representative, will do almost anything to keep this state of affairs as it is. This includes suppressing any evidence of native sentient beings.

The main character, Tasmin Ferrence, is a Tripsinger. The land on the planet is functionally divided into areas where the soil is deep, and areas where it is not deep, or is nonexistent. In such areas, there are giant crystals, hundreds of meters/yards in height, and with circumferences to match. It is dangerous to go into, or through, such areas. In fact, the only way to do so safely is to make music which keeps the crystals from shooting off parts of themselves and killing anyone near. The Tripsingers have learned how to traverse some areas where the crystals exist. The music is complex enough that untrained persons cannot survive such trips without a Tripsinger. The Tripsingers, who haven't discussed their beliefs on the subject explicitly, believe that the crystals are sentient.

It turns out, in the end, that there are two intelligent species on Jubal. One is the crystals, and the other is the viggies, a creature appearing somewhat like squirrels or rabbits.

How Tepper gets us to this conclusion is the plot, and it uses her characters. One thing that annoys me about Tepper is that her bad characters get peculiar names -- Chantiford, Aphrodite, whereas her good, or ordinary characters, get more ordinary, if non-common, names. Tasmin, and his assistants, Reb Jamieson and Clarin, are well-drawn. The evil characters, reprehensible as they are -- several of them have no apparent redeeming character traits -- are reasonably well-drawn, too.

This is a solid example of humans-meet-aliens science fiction. There is a fair amount, but not too much, of explicit translation, which helps to see how hard it is to understand beings who don't think like us. There is plenty of music, and it is evident that the music of both non-human intelligent beings is beautiful. There is an appendix, apparently written by a real-life expert on such things, explaining how a crystalline life form could have high intelligence. I'm sorry that I can't be a tourist to Jubal, and see the beautiful crystals, and hear the beautiful music.

One of the evil things that the local company boss does is to hire three other villains to create a religion, for the purpose of attracting tourists, and money, to Jubal. The doctrines of this religion are not well fleshed out, so I can't comment intelligently on it.

There are various kinds of love relationships in the book, including the admiration of Reb Jamieson for his master, Tasmin, and his willingness to sacrifice for Tasmin. Tepper does a good job of explaining the motives of the characters in these relationships.

The last feature I will mention is that Tasmin seeks vengeance on the local company boss. Another character talks him out of it. It isn't easy for her to do so.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sunspots 319

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

Science: From Wired, some amazing animal sounds. I particularly recommend the portion on the pistol shrimp.

NPR reports on a new development in artificial hearts -- continuous-flow hearts. There's no pulse!

(or something) Airlines took in over 3 billion dollars in fees for baggage last year, according to CNN.

Image source (public domain)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Heaven is for Real

I recently read Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His trip to Heaven and Back, about then four-year-old Colton Burpo, by his father, Todd Burpo, with assistance from Lynn Vincent. The book has been a best seller, but does not have a Wikipedia page. There is a page for the book.

Even though, or maybe because, I had heard a lot of enthusiasm for the book, I didn't expect to be convinced. (Todd Burpo is a pastor in The Wesleyan Church, of which I am a member. I had never heard of him until the book was published.) I expected to read a standard "out of body" experience book. There was a little of that, but the book did not rest on that aspect of what happened to Colton Burpo.

In a paragraph, the book presents the experiences of Colton's parents, as they come to realize that their son, who had undergone drastic surgery for a ruptured appendix, knew things that they had not told him, and that they didn't believe that he could have known, without having some supernatural experience. Probably the most amazing knowledge is that Colton said that he told his parents that he had seen an ancestor of his that he had never seen, and that ancestor looked like he did when he was an early adult, based on a photo that Colton had never seen.

It is possible that the book is a fake. But, to me, it presents real evidence that there is a life after death. I believed that already, of course.

Thanks for reading. Read Heaven is for Real.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Prayers in the Bible: Elijah's prayer on Mt. Carmel

Elijah's prayer on Mt. Carmel is one of the classic prayers in the Bible.

Here it is: 1 Kings 18:36 It happened at the time of the offering of the offering, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, “Yahweh, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. 37 Hear me, Yahweh, hear me, that this people may know that you, Yahweh, are God, and that you have turned their heart back again.” (World English Bible, which is public domain.) The whole story, giving the context, is here.

Elijah doesn't seem to have said a lot, compared to what the priests of Baal did. They whooped and hollered for a few hours. Elijah was praying to a real God. They weren't. Furthermore, Elijah was acting on God's command, so he had a right to expect an answer to this prayer. And, most importantly, God's honor was at stake. God always proves Himself under such circumstances. He certainly did then. He does in 2011.

This is one of a (so-far) year-long series. The previous post in the series is here.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Sunspots 318

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

Science: NASA has posted a video, and a still photo, of a recent spectacular solar flare.

Wired reports on how some plant parts can fold and unfold, depending on the humidity, after they have fallen off of the plant.

A David Barton, who is apparently a figure I should know about, but didn't, is on video, claiming that the Founding Fathers had discussed the matter of evolution fairly thoroughly. They couldn't have. Darwin was born at about that time.


Image source (public domain)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Prayers in the Bible: Psalm 119, again

In my previous post in this series, I looked (a little) at Psalm 119 as a prayer. Here are the last three verses of that Psalm. They are mostly a petition to God, hence a prayer.

Psalm 119:174 I have longed for your salvation, Yahweh.
    Your law is my delight.
175 Let my soul live, that I may praise you.
    Let your ordinances help me.
176 I have gone astray like a lost sheep.
    Seek your servant, for I don’t forget your commandments. (World English Bible, public domain)

Thanks for reading.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Fantastic Literature - E. Stephen Burnett points out how the Bible supports it

Some Christians think that, say, the Harry Potter books have no place in a Christian's reading, because they have to do with magic. The same has been said for books that have some sort of pagan religion, or even, like the Narnia books, minor characters (such as Tumnus the faun) that are based on non-Christian mythology. I recognize that there are some books that I shouldn't read, because of some sort of sinful content, and that some Christians probably have no business reading the Harry Potter books, or maybe even the Narnia books, because of their own personal make-up and experience, which might open them up to temptations that I don't think are particularly dangerous for me. But I disagree with the idea that no Christian should be reading books with magicians or some sort of pagan religion, and certainly disagree with crossing off all fantastic literature.

See here for a post on a series of books that I decided not to continue reading. See here for a post on the work of a particular author who is a self-declared Druid, but whose work is clearly sympathetic toward Christianity. Here is a post, attempting to describe Christian novels. Here is an examination of Christianity, or lack thereof, in the Harry Potter books.

E. Stephen Burnett is one of the authors of the Speculative Faith blog. In two recent posts - here and here - he opened my eyes about two pertinent Biblical facts. First, Daniel, and his Israeli companions, had to be conversant with the literature of Babylon. (See Daniel 1, particularly verse 17.) That literature almost certainly included stories about pagan deities. Second, the Tabernacle, as God directed its construction, almost certainly included materials given to the Israelites by the Egyptians, and most likely some of those materials were related to Egyptian idol worship. (See here for the source of some, or all, of the Israelite gold, and here for the instructions to use gold in the building of the tabernacle.)

Thanks, Burnett. It seems that God-serving people could know about the stories of pagan gods, and that the worship of God could use materials that had previously been related to the worship of other gods. So fantastic literature can also be used to God's glory, and the edification of Christians, even though it contains elements of magic or paganism. I have thought so for a long time, but this confirms it.

Actually, Burnett goes even further, because he thinks he needs to. Some Christians think, and argue, that no fiction, of any kind, is suitable for Christians to read. (See here for documentation.)

Thanks for reading. Read Burnett.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Sunspots 317

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

Science: (or something) National Public Radio on the hardest spelling words in the Scripps spelling bee.

Wired reports that there are animals found far below the surface of the earth, which is news.

Sports: Shaquille O'Neal, who recently announced his retirement, is destined for the NBA hall of fame, but his lifetime free throw shooting percentage was a dismal 53.7%. His worst year at the line, he shot 42.2%.

Li Na has become the first Chinese player to win a major tennis tournament.

Christianity: E. Stephen Burnett presents a brief theology of things (and deals with other matters).

Image source (public domain)

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Prayers in the Bible: Psalm 119

Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible.

It finally occurred to me that it's one long prayer! Here's a sample of it:

Psalm 119:68 You are good, and do good.
Teach me your statutes. (World English Bible)

Many of the 176 verses in this Hebrew acrostic are part of a prayer to know God, and what God wants us to do. Always appropriate as prayer!

The previous post in this series is here.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Faithful hidden lives

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. - George Eliot, Middlemarch, last paragraph (Project Gutenberg post of the book, which is public domain.)

Romans 2:5b God; 6 who “will pay back to everyone according to their works:” 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory, honor, and incorruptibility, eternal life; (World English Bible, public domain.) (See here for ESV version of this passage.)

I don't know if Eliot (aka Mary Anne Evans) had the Romans passage in mind when she finished Middlemarch, but her description, of a faithful hidden life, matches Paul's description of a quiet, patient life.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

I recently read Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay. (The first link in the previous sentence gives plot and publication information.) It was a good read, indeed. The book was, as the Wikipedia article says, a fictionalized setting of the An Shi rebellion in ancient China, an event which took more lives than any other war in recorded history, up until World War II (by which time there were a lot more people living).

Kay considers the war, but most of the book is about the events leading up to it, and he doesn't give much notice that a war is coming until the book is far along. Under Heaven is about characters and setting. It has a plot, too. What characters? What setting?

The book is too long, and too complex, for me to do it justice. See the first link in this post, if you want more detail and scope.

The characters are the most powerful people around the emperor, the family of the late General Shen Gao, and some other individuals who are important to that family. The emperor, himself, is a minor character. Kay occasionally introduces a totally new character, and tells some aspect of his story from the point view of that person for a chapter or more. In one case, he does this for a street beggar.

The book is also a love story. Two of the characters discover that they are in love with each other, after being associated for a long time.

The setting is the ins and outs of China, and surrounding lands, as Kay sees it, at that time. Much of the book bristles with court intrigue and protocol. One way to become important is to be a good poet -- one character in the book is a professional poet. Prospective court officials are tested, in part, on their ability to write poetry. There is a poetry contest between two characters.

The book is fantastic, a little. It would be historical fiction, but for the shamans, and the ghosts. There are ghosts, and they save the life of one of the characters. There are shamans, and they can work magic. They almost succeed into turning one of the characters into a wolf -- they would have, if the magic hadn't been interrupted. The ghosts and the shamans, or their effects, are necessary in the development of a son, and the daughter, of General Shen Gao. There is also a society, the kanlin, who are warriors, as in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. While it is not clear that they possess extraordinary powers, it is not certain that they don't. They certainly fight well.

Although I found no Christ-figure, and this is by no means a Christian novel, there are characters with integrity, and even characters who sacrifice their own lives, in the book.

If you want to be taken into a complex world, unlike 21st Century North America, try Under Heaven.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Sunspots 316

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

Science: National Public Radio reports on the use of the test that decides whether someone is a psychopath or not.

National Public Radio also reports that we don't really know the cause of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome -- we had thought that we did, but no.

Sports: Congratulations, sort of, to Mike Brown, who will apparently be the new coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, replacing Phil Jackson, who is retiring.

Image source (public domain)